Kovacs v. Cooper/Dissent Rutledge

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United States Supreme Court

336 U.S. 77

Kovacs  v.  Cooper

 Argued: Oct. 11, 1948. --- Decided: Jan 31, 1949

Mr. Justice RUTLEDGE, dissenting.

I am in accord with the views expressed by my brother BLACK. I think it important, however, to point out that a majority here agree with him that the issue presented is whether a state (here a municipality) may forbid all use of sound trucks or amplifying devices in public streets, without reference to whether 'loud and raucous noises' are emitted. Only a minority take the view that the Trenton ordinance merely forbids using amplifying instruments emitting loud and raucous noises.

Yet a different majority, one including that minority and two other justices, sustain the ordinance and its application. In effect Kovacs stands convicted, but of what it is impossible to tell, because the majority upholding the conviction do not agree upon what constituted the crime. How, on such a hashing of different views of the thing forbidden, Kovacs could have known with what he was charged or could have prepared a defense, I am unable to see. How anyone can do either in the future, under this decision, I am equally at loss to say.

In my view an ordinance drawn so ambiguously and inconsistently as to reflect the differing views of its meaning taken by the two groups who compose the majority sustaining it, would violate Fourteenth Amendment due process even if no question of free speech were involved. No man should be subject to punishment under a statute when even a bare majority of judges upholding the conviction cannot agree upon what acts the statute denounces. What the effect of this decision may be I cannot foretell, except that Kovacs will stand convicted and the division among the majority voting to affirm leaves open for future determination whether absolute and total state prohibition of sound trucks in public places can stand consistently with the First Amendment. For myself, I have no doubt of state power to regulate their abuse in reasonable accommodation, by narrowly drawn statutes, to other interests concerned in use of the streets and in freedom from public nuisance. But that the First Amendment limited its protections of speech to the natural range of the human voice as it existed in 1790 would be, for me, like saying that the commerce power remains limited to navigation by sail and travel by the use of horses and oxen in accordance with the principal modes of carrying on commerce in 1789. The Constitution was not drawn with any such limited vision of time, space and mechanics. It is one thing to hold that the states may regulate the use of sound trucks by appropriately limited measures. It is entirely another to say their use can be forbidden altogether.

To what has been said above and by Mr. Justice BLACK, I would add only that I think my brother FRANKFURTER demonstrates the conclusion opposite to that which he draws, namely, that the First Amendment guaranties of the freedoms of speech, press, assembly and religion occupy preferred position not only in the Bill of Rights but also in the repeated decisions of this Court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).